Advertisement

ANALYSIS: Appreciation for Little still runs deep within Jets’ organization

He was the conscience of the Winnipeg Jets, a valued veteran who didn’t speak often but whose voice carried tremendous weight.

The epitome of a true professional, a guy who showed up for work and did whatever was asked of him — and then some.

A rare player who spent his entire career with one organization, even if that included a franchise relocation.

Upon relocation of that franchise to Winnipeg, this player took it upon himself to change numbers, knowing that a franchise icon of Jets 1.0 was synonymous with No. 10.

If these clues haven’t led you to the logical conclusion, the player in question is none other than Bryan Little and he was back in the building last weekend as the Jets took on the Edmonton Oilers.

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: ANALYSIS — Jets push themselves back into playoff equation

He arrived mostly unannounced and in typical Little fashion, his preference was to stay mostly anonymous.

And while he did make an exception for a cameo with Sara Orlesky on TSN during the first intermission, Little didn’t want to bring attention to himself by doing a larger media availability to provide an update on how he was doing or what the latest on his recovery was.

But during one of the stoppages in play, the in-house camera focused in on Little, who was sporting a Tragically Hip T-shirt with a logo in the shape of a Maple Leaf under his blazer and he casually waved to the crowd and allowed himself to crack a smile.

Story continues below advertisement

As folks inside the building took a moment to recognize it was Little being shown on the scoreboard, the polite applause crescendoed to more of a roar and many fans rose to their feet to show their appreciation.

“It’s awesome. He was such a great player, a great person for this organization. Having played with him for a while it brings a smile to your face,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry.

“I think it’s kind of the person he was, the player he was. Kind of fly under the radar. You’d always play with some other guys who would get the recognition; he was always fine with that. He just likes to be in the back of the room, out of the spotlight, let the other guys take the credit. Kind of doesn’t want to be in the public’s eye.

“As it turns, you kind of see and start to realize that they really recognize who he was and what he meant for our team and the city. You realize what he meant to the fans, that they were thanking him and really appreciative of him being here. It’s a pretty emotional moment.”

Read more: Winnipeg Jets forward Bryan Little won’t play next season after doctor recommendation

It was probably a moment that stirred up some emotion for Little, whose last game with the Jets came on Nov. 4 of 2019 when he was struck by a shot in the head/ear, causing a serious injury that has more than likely ended his NHL career.

Story continues below advertisement

Hearing that roar from the crowd is something that many athletes miss when the time comes to hang up the blades, the type of moment that can send chills down your spine.

The Winnipeg Jets’ Bryan Little (18) is helped after getting hit in the head with the puck against the New Jersey Devils during third-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

It’s also a reminder of what Little has left behind, a game that provided him so much joy, long before the Atlanta Thrashers made him the 12th overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft.

One day you are rolling along as the second-line centre of an NHL team and then it comes to a crashing halt, but not before attempting to get medical clearance to make a comeback.

That can’t be easy to go through.

But in true Little fashion, he was upbeat and expressing gratitude for his health when I ran into him in the hallway at the game during the intermission.

Story continues below advertisement

This wasn’t an official farewell for Little; that will surely come at a later date and be complete with a little more of the pomp and circumstance required to celebrate the contributions of a player whose name is littered throughout the franchise record book.

While many of those numbers are impressive, including the 843 games played over 13 NHL seasons, the 217 goals and 521 points, Little was always the type of player whose value was enhanced by the intangibles.

When critics wondered if he was a true No. 1 centre, Little took the comments in stride and anchored the top line with Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd.

When it was time for Mark Scheifele to take over the role, Little didn’t bang on the door of the coach’s office and demand more ice time or to be moved, he embraced the role to provide the defensive-zone cover when put on a line with offensively gifted wingers Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.

When the Jets put together a franchise record for wins and points in 2017-18, he didn’t bat an eye when the acquisition of Paul Stastny in a deadline deal meant that he’d now been pushed to third- and fourth-line duty.

The Winnipeg Jets’ Bryan Little (18) checks the Calgary Flames’ Derek Ryan (10) during first-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018.
The Winnipeg Jets’ Bryan Little (18) checks the Calgary Flames’ Derek Ryan (10) during first-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. John Woods / The Canadian Press

When the Jets looked to bolster the centre depth one year later when bringing in Kevin Hayes, Little once again said all the right things and backed up those words with actions, winning his job back before the series with the St. Louis Blues was over.

Story continues below advertisement

The following off-season he was back in the second-line centre spot and just under two weeks before suffering the gruesome injury, Little was in the spotlight, delivering the overtime winner for the Jets in the Heritage Classic outdoor game against the Calgary Flames.

This was a highlight for Little, especially since an injury kept him out of the 2016 Heritage Classic in Winnipeg.

With the snow falling in Regina and a good chunk of Canada watching, Little provided a Kodak moment that will last a lifetime.

No, it wasn’t the game-winner in the Stanley Cup final, but it was the type of thing many people dream of when playing on an outdoor rink and dreaming of becoming an NHL player.

Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Morrissey & Wheeler Interview – Feb. 17' RAW: Winnipeg Jets Morrissey & Wheeler Interview – Feb. 17
RAW: Winnipeg Jets Morrissey & Wheeler Interview – Feb. 17 – Feb 18, 2022

Perhaps most importantly, Little has left behind a roadmap for some of the young players he served as an example to.

Story continues below advertisement

“It was amazing. For me coming in as a young guy, Bryan’s work ethic, his commitment to the game and to being a pro, doing the same thing every day over and over, his fitness level, all of those things were things that as a young player you strive to try and follow,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, who has grown into a key part of the leadership group as an alternate captain.

“He’s not a guy that says a whole lot. We were joking on the bench that getting up on the Jumbotron, as much as it probably means a lot to him, was probably the last thing he’d wanted.

“But I learned so much from him. Looking back, anyone that played with him, when you ask they can’t help but say he’s such a great guy, such a great person. It meant a lot to see him there. Just terrible obviously the luck that he had. But his impact on my career, on all of us who came in, would say the same thing.

“The impact has lasted with us and lasted with our team. It’s nice to see him get recognized.”

Click to play video: 'Full capacity returns for Winnipeg Jets games' Full capacity returns for Winnipeg Jets games
Full capacity returns for Winnipeg Jets games – Feb 16, 2022

Not only was Little an honest player who did so many little things well, in his dealings with the media, he was always forthcoming and told it like it was, whether things were going smoothly or if there was a bump in the road to push through.

Story continues below advertisement

It was one of the many things I appreciated about covering him during his time with the Jets and I was glad to be able to convey that during our discussion.

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

Sponsored content